Death, Life and the Question of Identity

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Sam Vaknin’s Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web SitesA classical point of departure in defining Death, seems to be Life itself. Death is perceived either as a cessation of Life – or as a “transit zone”, on the way to a continuation of Life by other means. While the former presents a disjunction, the latter is a continuum, Death being nothing but a corridor into another plane of existence (the hereafter). Another, logically more rigorous approach, would be to ask “Who is Dead” when Death occurs. In other words, an identity of the Dying (=it which “commits” Death) is essential in defining Death.

But what are the means to establish an unambiguous, unequivocal identity? Is an identity established through the use of quantitative parameters? Is it dependent, for instance, upon the number of discrete units which comprise the functioning whole? If so, where is the level at which useful distinctions and observations are replaced by useless scholastic mind-warps? Example: if we study a human identity – should it be defined by the number and organization of its limbs, its cells, its atoms? The cells in a human body are replaced (with the exception of the cells of the nervous system) every 5 years. Would this imply that we gain a new identity each time this cycle is completed? Adopting this course of thinking leads to absurd results: When humans die, the replacement rate of their cells is infinitely reduced. Does this mean that their identity is better and longer preserved once dead? No one would agree with this. Death is tantamount to a loss of identity – not to its preservation. So, a qualitative yardstick is required.

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We can start by asking will the identity change – if we change someone’s’ brain by another’s? “He is not the same” – we say of someone with a brain injury. If a partial alteration of the brain causes such sea change (however partial) in the determinants of identity – it seems safe to assume that a replacement of one’s brain by another will result in a total change of identity, to the point of its abolition and replacement by another. If the brain is the locus of identity, we should be able to assert that when (the cells of) all the other organs of the body are replaced (with the exception of the brain) – the identity will remain the same. The human hardware (body) and software (the wiring of the brain) are conversely analogous to a computer. If we change all the software in a computer – it will still remain the same (though more or less capable) computer. This is equivalent to growing up in humans.

However, if we change the computer’s processor – it will no longer be identified as the same computer. This, partly, is the result of the separation between hardware (=the microprocessor) and software (=the programmes that it processes). There is no such separation in the human brain. These 1300 grams of yellowish material in our heads are both hardware and software.

Still, the computer analogy seems to indicate that our identity resides not in our learning, knowledge, or memories. It is an epiphenomenon. It emerges when a certain level of hardware complexity is attained. Yet, it is not so simple. If we were to eliminate someone’s entire store of learning and memories (without affecting his brain) – would he still be the same person (=would he still retain the same identity)? Probably not. Luckily, achieving the above – erasing one’s learning and memories without affecting his brain – is impossible.

In humans, learning and memories ARE the brain. They change the hardware that processes them in an irreversible manner. This, naturally, cannot be said of a computer. There, the separation is clear.

Change a computer’s hardware and you changed its identity. And computers are software – invariant. We are, therefore, able to confidently conclude that the brain is the sole determinant of identity, its seat and signifier. This is because our brain IS both our processing hardware and our processing software. It is also a repository of processed data. ANY subsystem comprising these functions can be justly equated with the system of which it is a part.

This seems to hold true even under the wildest gedankenexperiments. A human brain detached from any body is still assumed to possess identity. And a monkey implanted with a human brain will host the identity of the former owner of the brain. Around this seemingly faultless test revolved many of the debates which characterized the first decade of the new discipline of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Turing’s Test pits invisible (hardware – less) intelligences (=brains) against one another. The answers which they provide (by teleprinter, hidden behind partitions) determine their identity (human or not). When the software (=the answers) is accessible, no direct observation of the hardware (=the brains) is necessary in order to determine identity. But the brain’s status as THE privileged identity system is such that even if no answers are forthcoming from it – the identity will reside with it. For instance, if for some logistical or technological problem, a brain will be prevented from providing output, answers, and interactions – we are likely to assume that it has the potential to do so.

Thus, in the case of an inactive brain, an identity will be the derivative of its potential to interact (rather than of its actual interaction). After all, this, exactly, is what paleoanthropologists are attempting to do. They are trying to delineate the identity of our forefathers by studying their skulls and, by inference, their brains and their mental potentials. True, they invest effort in researching other types of bones. Ultimately, they hope to be able to draw an accurate visual description of our ancestors.

But we must not confuse description with identity, phenomenology with aetiology. What dies, therefore, is the brain and only the brain. Functionally, Death can also be defined (really, observed) from the outside. It is the cessation of the exertion of influence (=power) over physical systems. It is sudden absence of physical effects exerted by the dead object, a singularity, a discontinuity.

It is not an inert state of things. Inertia is a balance of forces – and in Death the absence of any force whatsoever is postulated. Death is, therefore, also not an entropic climax. Entropy is an isotropic, homogeneous distribution of energy. Death is the absence of any and all energies. While, outwardly, the two might seem identical – they are the two poles of a dichotomy.

So, Death, as opposed to inertia or entropy, is not something that modern physics is fully equipped to deal with. Physics, by definition, deals with forces and measurable effects. It has nothing to say about force-less, energy-devoid physical states. Actually, this would be a stark contradiction in its terms. Indeed, this definition of Death has reality itself to argue against it. If Death is the cessation of impacts on physical systems (=the absence of physical effects), we are hard pressed to explain memory away.

Memory is a physical effect (=electrochemical activity of the brain) within a physical system (=the Brain). It can be preserved and shipped across time and space in capsules called books or articles (or art). These containers of triggers of physical effects (in recipient brains) defy Death. The physical system which produced the memory capsule will surely cease to exist – but it will continue to physically impact other physical systems long after its demise, long after it was supposed to have ceased to do so.

Memory divorces Death from the physical world. As long as we (or our products) are remembered – we continue to have a physical effect on future physical systems. And as long as this happens – we are not technically (or, at least, fully) dead. Our Death will be fully accomplished only after our memory will have been wiped out completely, not even having the potential of being reconstructed in the future.

Only then will we cease to have any dimension of existence (=effect on other physical systems). Philosophically, there is no difference between being influenced by a direct discussion with Kant – and being influenced by his words preserved in a time-space capsule (=a book). For the listener/reader Kant is very much alive, more alive than many of his neighbours whom he never met. This issue can be further radicalized. What is the difference between a two dimensional representation of Kant (portrait), a three dimensional representation of the philosopher (a statute) and yet another three dimensional representation of him (Kant himself as perceived by his contemporaries who chanced to see him)? As far as a bias-free observer is concerned (a camera linked to a computer) – there is no difference. All these representations are registered and mathematically represented in a processing unit so as to allow for a functional, relatively isomorphic mapping.

Still, human observes will endow the three dimensional versions with a privileged status. Philosophically, there is no rigorous reason to do so. It is conceivable that, in the future, we will be able to preserve a three-dimensional likeness (a hologram), replete with smells, temperature and tactile effects. Why should the flesh and blood version be judged superior to such a likeness? Physically, the choice of a different medium does not create a hierarchy of representations, from better to worse. In other words, the futuristic hologram should not be deemed inferior to the classic, organic version as long as they both possess the same information content.

Thus, the hierarchy cannot be derived from describing the state of things. An hierarchy is established by considering potentials, namely: the future. Non-organic representations (hereinunder referred to as “representations”) of intelligent and conscious organic originals (hereinunder referred to as; “organic originals”) are finite. The organic originals are infinite in their possibilities to create and to procreate, to change themselves and their environment, to act and be acted upon within ever more complex feedback loops. The non-organic versions, the representations, are self contained and final. The organic originals and their representations may contain identical information in a given nano-second.

But the amount of information will increase in the organic version and decrease in the non-organic one (due to the second Law of Thermodynamics). This inevitable divergence is what endows the organic original with its privileged status. This property – of increasing the amount of information (=order) through creation and procreation – characterizes not only the organic originals but also anything that emanates from them. It characterizes human works of art and science, for instance, or the very memory of humans. All these tend to increase information (indeed, they are, in themselves, information packets).

So, could we happily sum and say that the propagation and the continuation of physical effects (through memory) is the continuation of Life after Death? Life and Memory share an important trait. They both have a negentropic (=order and information increasing) impact on their surroundings. Does that make them synonymous? Is Death only a transitory phase from one form of Life (organic) to another (informational, spiritual)? However tempting this equation is – in most likelihood, it is also false. The reason is that there are two sources of the increase in information and what sets them apart is not trivial. As long as the organic original lives, all creation depends upon it. After it dies, the works that it has created and the memories that are associated with it, continue to affect physical systems.

However, their ability to foster new creative work, new memories, in short: their capacity to increase order through increased information is totally dependent upon other, living, organic originals. In the absence of all other organic originals, they will stagnate and go through an entropic decrease of information and order. So, this is the crux of the distinction between Life and Death: LIFE is the potential, possessed by organic originals, to create (=to fight entropy by increasing information and order), using their own software. Such software can be coded into hardware – e.g., the DNA – and then the creative act involves the replication of the organic original or parts thereof. Upon the original’s DEATH, the potential to create is propagated through Memory.

Creative acts, works of art and science, other creations can be carried out only within the software (=the brains) of other, living, organic originals. Both forms of creation can co-exist during the original’s life. Death, however, is proclaimed only with the incapacitation of the first form of creation (by an organic original independent of others), only when the surrogate form of creation becomes exclusive. Memories created by one organic original resonate through the brains of others.

This generates information and provokes the creative potential in recipient brains. Some of them do react by creating and, thus, play host to the parasitic, invading memory, infecting other members of the memory-space (=the cultural space). Death is, therefore, the assimilation of the products of an organic original in a Collective. It is, indeed, the continuation of Life but in a collective, rather than in an individualistic mode. Alternatively, Death could be defined as a terminal change in the state of the hardware with designated pieces of the software injected to the brains of the Collective. This, of course, is reminiscent of certain viral mechanisms.

The comparison may be superficial and misleading – or may open a new vista: the individual as a cell in the large organism of humanity. Memory has a role in this new form of social-political evolution which superseded Biological Evolution, as an instrument of adaptation. Certain human reactions – e.g., opposition to change and religious and ideological wars – can perhaps be viewed as immunological reactions in this context.

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Death, Life and the Question of Identity. (2019, Apr 05). Retrieved from

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